Forty-two years ago, having newly graduated, I commenced a post-graduate Diploma in Education course at Edinburgh University to qualify as an English teacher. My older daughter, having worked in retail management for the five years since graduating, has newly started the same process at Glasgow University.
I never pushed her to teaching but am delighted she has chosen what remains one of the most intrinsically rewarding careers imaginable. My only brief disappointment came when a couple of former colleagues, on hearing that she was considering teaching, urged me to dissuade her. That says something about the pressure under which teachers today operate.
It might of course be no more than a cynical but humorous response to my pride and enthusiasm, but if that is the case it is unhealthy. The young, humorous, occasionally cynical teacher can too easily turn into the bane of every school, the old, humourless staffroom cynic who has seen it all, knows it all and dismisses it all. Cynicism and teaching are an incompatible mix.
On the other hand, it was a real pleasure that living throughout her childhood and formative years with a teacher had not discouraged her. She had developed a realistic perspective on teaching: “You were sometimes annoyed, tired or frustrated, but you always loved your work.”
It will be a great experience for me to see schools, teaching and learning through the eyes of an enthusiastic newcomer, to hear of new understandings of how the teaching process works. Every recent connection with young teachers has convinced me of how, collectively, they are more reflective about, and more knowledgeable of, that teaching process than was my generation at the same stage.
What advice have I given her? First, look for the experienced teachers who remain committed and enthusiastic. Note their insights and listen to their advice. Don’t feel obliged always to take their advice. What works for them may not work for you; but always listen to it. Don’t model yourself on one excellent teacher, but look for the traits in a range of successful teachers and take the characteristics from each which best fit your own style and personality.
Second, the good secondary teacher has a mastery of his or her subject, but is a teacher first and a subject specialist second. Observing teachers from other subjects and observing primary colleagues will be as useful in developing pedagogic skills as observing teachers in your own subject.
Third, understand that respect does not come with the qualification or the job. Today’s young people are, rightly, not deferential. They respect skilled, committed teachers who teach well. Know what you are teaching. Be prepared and be methodical. Always be on time, always have marking completed when promised, always show an interest in each learner’s progress.
You cannot gain their respect by being their “friend”. They have friends aplenty of their own age. Relationships however are crucial. Solid learning always rests on mutually respectful, warm relationships. Every teacher has different means of achieving such relationships but crucial to real success in this area is having a genuine interest in and knowledge of each learner: which one plays for the school team, which one’s mother was ill, which one is a hip-hop dancer.
Appropriate, balanced relationships with learners, however, are among both the most important and the most difficult aspects of the teacher’s persona. Whatever other skills might be learned in this year at university, relationships cannot be reduced to an easily defined, clearly articulated set of discrete skills.
Finally, teachers are workers who need the collective protection of the union. Join it! (She already has.)
Alex Wood has been a teacher for 38 years. He is now an associate with the Scottish Centre for Studies in School Administration at Edinburgh University.